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How Do We Decarbonize [Everything But Electricity]?

Conversations about climate and decarbonization often start and end with electricity: we need to improve efficiency, while also replacing coal and natural gas plants with a combination of wind, solar, and nuclear generation. However, electricity represents less than a third of the U.S. carbon footprint, and its share of the footprint is shrinking. The puzzles of decarbonizing the transportation and agriculture sectors—while also maintaining essential carbon sinks, such as those in the world’s forests and the earth’s soil—now present tougher challenges. Complex problems like these are what Solve is built to tackle.

On Tuesday, March 7, 42 individuals and teams from around the world will present at Solve at the United Nations, pitching their solutions to global challenges in front of both a live audience and a panel of judges.  Eleven of these solutions are focused on how individuals, businesses, and society can better manage their carbon emissions. The solutions address a diverse range of sectors and feature distinct business models, but they share one common denominator: each has the potential to achieve large impacts.  

What makes non-electrical sectors of our economy harder to decarbonize?  Electricity currently enjoys two advantages in the decarbonization race: the economics of wind and solar make them easier choices in more and more parts of the world, and whether a kWh is generated by coal or solar power is indistinguishable to the person who flips the light switch. Cost-effective clean technologies are not yet delivering the same scale of carbon dividends in the agriculture, transportation, and land use arenas. Society also needs—and often lacks—ways to engage consumers and change ingrained habitual behaviors. Add in the puzzles of fragmented data sources and regulatory oversight systems, along with simultaneous challenges from economic development pressures, and non-electrical emissions are both less discussed and represent a greater opportunity for new approaches to reduce carbon output.

Out of the 11 solutions that advanced as Solve finalists, nine of them can help decarbonize these less-discussed sectors. For example: two solutions capture greenhouse gases and convert them into useful products, such as graphene or fuels. Two would shift how we travel, both in developed economies like the U.S., and in countries like Bangladesh, which suffer from some of the world’s worst air quality. Two solutions propose alternative ways to grow crops and manage soil to draw more carbon out of the atmosphere. Two would create new opt-in markets to appropriately price carbon-intensive energy in transportation and industry. The remaining three could change how people think about carbon and energy, and who has access to electricity. All of these ideas employ technology, but each also considers the markets and social contexts their technology would affect.

To evaluate this broad range of ideas, we have assembled a team of experts to review the solutions’ pitches.  Judges include (but are not limited to):

  • Ian Waitz, Dean of the School of Engineering at MIT.  Ian has spent decades researching and improving transportation and aviation systems.
  • Zack Bongiovanni, Head of Global Partnerships - Emerging Markets at YouTube.  Zach is focused on internet and energy infrastructure to support the earth’s next billion people.
  • Tara Dankel, Assistant Professor at the Singapore University of Technology and Design.  Tara is a philosopher focused on technology and urbanism.

The judges will grill each team after a three-minute live pitch before several hundred people, and help us choose five as Solver teams. Those Solver teams will get the connections they need to make their ideas start up (or scale up) and change the world —we’re most excited for that part. The Solve team will continue sharing their stories and impacts through this channel, so follow along.

One final teaser: sustainability is a lot more than just carbon, and decarbonization is part of a broader set of wicked problems. How we build our towns and cities, how we feed nine billion people, how we eliminate poverty, and how we create a modern world that won’t destroy our ecosystems are all interwoven questions. We’ll be announcing a new sustainability challenge in May to focus on a different piece of this Gordian knot – perhaps you’ll have the best solution?


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